What is Apple iBeacon? Here's what you need to know

What is Apple iBeacon? Here's what you need to know

Summary: The Bluetooth-powered location system that could shake up shopping (and more) forever.

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Estimote's beacon technology is being used in a trial by Virgin Atlantic. Image: Estimote

 What is iBeacon?

iBeacon is Apple's implementation of Bluetooth low-energy (BLE) wireless technology to create a different way of providing location-based information and services to iPhones and other iOS devices. iBeacon arrived in iOS7, which means it works with iPhone 4s or later, iPad (third generation and onwards) iPad mini and iPod touch (fifth generation or later). It's worth noting the same BLE technology is also compatible with Android 4.3. and above.

How does it work?

The beacons themselvers are small, cheap Bluetooth transmitters. Apps installed on your iPhone listen out for the signal transmitted by these beacons and respond accordingly when the phone comes into range.

For example, if you pass a beacon in a shop, the retailer's app (assuming you have it installed) could display a special offer alert for you. On a visit to a museum, the museum's app would provide information about the closest display, using your distance from beacons placed near exhibits to work out your position. As such iBeacon could be a much better option for in-door mapping - which GPS struggles with.

What real world iBeacon examples are there?

It's early days for iBeacon – Apple has only been testing it since December last year in its US retail stores. Virgin Atlantic is also conducting trial of iBeacon at Heathrow airport, so that passengers heading towards the security checkpoint will find their phone automatically pulling up their mobile boarding pass ready for inspection. In the London area retail giant Tesco has been testing it in a store, as is Waitrose, while Regents Street is working with retailers to test the technology too.

What actually is a beacon?

Any iOS device that supports sharing data using Bluetooth low energy can beam signals to an iBeacon app. For example, an iPad can both emit and receive an iBeacon signal. But other than this Apple doesn't make the beacons itself - these come from third-party manufacturers – for example the Virgin Atlantic trial is using hardware from Estimote.

Whether you'll pick up a signal from a beacon will also vary: walls, doors, and other physical objects will shorten signal range (as Apple notes the signals are also affected by water, which means the human body itself will affect the signals.)

Does iBeacon mean I'll be bombarded with ads wherever I go?

That rather depends on how many apps you have. The beacons themselves won't do much unless you have the corresponding app downloaded to your iOS device, so you should be able to browse in relative peace. Also, iOS doesn't deliver region notifications until certain threshold conditions are met – Apple's developer notes state the device has to cross an iBeacon boundary, move away from the boundary by a minimum distance, and remain at that minimum distance for at least 20 seconds before the notifications are reported.

That should reduce the pesting at least a bit. But there is certainly a risk of fatigue if you're being hassled all the way around the mall.

Can I make it stop?

Yes - as Adrian Kingsley-Hughes points out you can opt out by changing permissions under Location Services for the relevant app (accessed via Settings > Privacy > Location Services), by switching off Bluetooth, or by uninstalling that particular app.

Why is iBeacon such a big deal?

The technology could be a big step towards mobile payments, something smartphone makers have been looking at for a long time without getting it right. Running the technology which breaks through and becomes the standard is going to be very lucrative. As such iBeacon is not the only game in town - PayPal is working on its own 'PayPal Beacon' technology - expected next year - which will allow shoppers to 'check-in' and pay for goods from the PayPal account on their phone. Near Field Communications (NFC) is another technology trying to find an niche (right now with limited to success) in mobile payments, plus plenty of others.

Depending on how iBeacon evolves and is adopted it could form an important part of Apple's ecommerce and mobile payments effort. For example, the combination of iBeacon and Passbook could allow you to get sent a coupon while in a store and buy something without ever seeing a member of staff. Equally, shoppers may find the whole thing slightly unnerving and ignore it altogether.

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Topics: Mobility, Apple, E-Commerce

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29 comments
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  • beware of the Apple's privacy

    "Apple sued for collecting and selling customers’ personal info"
    Jiří Pavelec
    • On Facebook?

      If so, you've already given all of your personal info.
      thenitewatch
      • yes, but I haven't given to Apple who sells personal info :)

        yes, but I haven't given to Apple who sells personal info :)
        Jiří Pavelec
    • Links please?

      Not sure I have seen that one anywhere. But I just consider the source.
      ScanBack
      • arent you able to search with google? you have an iPhone, right? :)

        arent you able to search with google? you have an iPhone, right? :)
        http://goo.gl/HFgdFp
        Jiří Pavelec
      • Search can be your friend

        http://news.yahoo.com/apple-sued-collecting-selling-customers-personal-205604838.html
        It'sNotMe
  • I don't see it working out

    iBeacon is of course proprietary to Apple. I think if the idea of mobile payments takes off it'll need to be platform agnostic and work for everyone, not just iOS users.
    MajorlyCool
    • Compatible with Android 4.3 and up.

      Says it in the article.
      Anything strictly proprietary to Apple will fail - if only 20% of smartphone users worldwide can use it, it's not universal enough. Even in the US where Apple has a lot higher percentage of the market, it's not universal enough. Apple shunning NFC has probably been a big hindrance to ISIS catching on, because you're excluding a huge part of the smartphone segment.
      NotMSUser
      • No it's not

        Bluetooth LE is compatible with Droid 4.3+

        I beacon is purely Apple
        Boothy_p
        • Um, no

          http://developer.radiusnetworks.com/ibeacon/android/

          Among others. This should have been obvious, as it is app-centric, not OS-centric. All you need is the APIs in the client OS and any app can utilize them.
          .DeusExMachina.
          • Um, yes

            http://support.apple.com/kb/HT6048

            iBeacon is proprietary to Apple. Your link represents a workaround that allows Android to make use of iBeacon.

            It wouldn't surprise me if A) Apple sues them to make them desist. B) Apple makes a change to ensure it no longer works.
            MajorlyCool
          • Sorry, but you're just plain wrong

            Use of the branding is proprietary to Apple, the Bluetooth LE implementation isn't. The code proprietary to Apple in the spec is principally related to that branding and there is NOTHING preventing anyone from making apps for other OSes that take advantage of the technology.
            .DeusExMachina.
  • Let me count thy ways...

    1) Getting notifications of ads (as will inevitably be the yes-please-I'm-drooling desire of store owners everywhere) sounds annoyingly terrible!

    Even for those rare applications that weren't "trying to get in my wallet", then

    2) Apple has screwed up by making this proprietary. Even if I were a store owner, I wouldn't invest in something that would annoyingly notify some subset of the 25% of people who have iPhones of some sale. I want to try to reach out to ALL my customers.

    "Ah, whatever... we don't care about anyone who doesn't have an iPhone".
    No! lol... more like "don't worry about anyone who HAS an iPhone".
    I know we just got a new iOS launch but let's get real - it's 2014.
    geolemon
    • and will be worse

      and this is much worse:

      "Apple sued for collecting and selling customers’ personal info"
      Jiří Pavelec
  • I don't know.

    This has a kind of Google-like, location-aware creepiness about it. Beside, who walks around a store looking at their f-----g phone all the time? Super-geeks, that's who!
    Userama
    • Huh?

      When was the last time you walked a mall? Recently shopping at the SBG here in LA, you'd swear the teens/20's would have issues navigating - phone out, look intently at screen, fingers flying across said screen all while walking. All that missing, usually, was the bubble gum.
      rhonin
  • What is Apple iBeacon? Here's what you need to know

    And you thought your battery was draining quickly now, enable this and watch it deplete in no time. Not so sure if anyone is going to willingly opt in for some ads.
    Loverock.Davidson
    • BT 4.0

      BT 4.0 is rather energy-efficient. The current Google Now and Cortana systems that do location-based tracking (I'm not familiar with iOS to know if they do this well or not) use GPS and cellular data so they are surely more energy intensive.

      But it's academic anyway. Few people will care about this, other than as an initial novelty, or if Apple pays them. GPS assisted by WiFi works fine in malls and museums already (at least where I have tried it). Maybe this will be popular somewhere, but it's going to be a niche market.
      fawlty70
      • Don't forget

        Don't forget to mention that people will use bluetooth in the future more often, since all the wearables will rely on bluetooth. www.incredapple.nl states in their research that in the USA 50% and in Europe 30% already turned on BT Mainly since Apple turns on BT after every update. My GF didn't even know what the BT icon ment LOL.
        TimHoog
  • Enough already

    Yeah, so it'll do what Cortana in WP does currently? Except it requires all sorts of new hardware to do so?
    fawlty70